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Bev Watkins, director of community placement from Goodwill Easter Seals, said the partnership was developed almost by accident about six years ago. The nonprofit was working to find employment for workers with visual impairments who were struggling to find work in the region, often after being displaced from other jobs.
At the same time, the call center was looking to fill vacant positions and wanted to work with Goodwill to overcome barriers to employment.
One of the key problems was that existing computer programs designed to allow visually impaired workers to use a computer couldn’t communicate with the Red Roof Inn’s reservation system. Workers at the call center are tasked with taking calls from customers, answering questions and taking reservations for the chain’s properties.
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The call center was willing to try to find a solution, Watkins said, while that may not have been the case elsewhere.
“It’s a part of their culture that they explore what the accessibility needs are for all their employees,” Watkins said.
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The agencies received a boost when they discovered Mark Tudela, a mechanical engineer who owns MJT Engineering Services. A former employee at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Tudela started his own business in Springboro that specializes in developing solutions so disabled Ohioans can find and retain employment.
He developed code and set up keystroke commands that allowed Red Roof Inn’s online reservation system to communicate with existing programs so people with vision loss could independently use a computer with a keyboard.
That allowed vision-impaired workers at the call center to take reservations over the phone, and use keystrokes on their computer to enter the information into the Red Roof Inn’s reservation system. The training was often challenging for workers, who have to simultaneously listen to a customer, listen for the prompts from the computer program and answer the customer’s questions.
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“It’s almost like three conversations going on at all times,” Gillis said.
But once they became accustomed to the system, Gillis said most of the new employees thrived. Pat Foltz and Vicki Minter were two of the early employees to take part in the program. Foltz said she had worked for more than 30 years in Dayton before she was laid off and had trouble finding steady work. Because of her sight, Foltz said she’s always felt she had to outwork her peers just to stay on the job.
“That’s the feeling a physically challenged person was forced to work with,” Foltz said. “I knew I had to be better than the best seeing employees was.”
Since then, Goodwill has screened potential applicants who might be a good fit for employment with the company and the number of visually impaired employees has steadily grown. Watkins said her agency receives funding from Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, which covers the cost for training. In many cases, employees are housed in a local hotel and receive transportation to work every day for training.
Especially early on in the program, training could take weeks as employees had to learn the system and the partners had to iron out challenges to make the computer programs work together. Minter, one of the early employees in the program, said she feared she would be fired at times because the training took so long.
Especially early in her career, Foltz said there were few opportunities for workers with impaired vision and few protections in the workplace.
“Back in those days, you were really under the gun because you didn’t have the Americans with Disabilities Act in place,” Foltz said.
But Gillis said they constantly reassured applicants to be patient because it would eventually pay off. Both Watkins and Gillis said they have also talked to other employers in the region to describe their experience and encourage employers to take a closer look at hiring workers with physical disabilities.
“The one thing we’ve got to get out to people is to let employers know, is it always smooth and easy? No,” Gillis said. “But we’ll persevere and any employer can have this same incredible experience. But they’ve got to not be afraid to let them come in.”
Not all of the employees that Goodwill has recommended to the Red Roof Inn have worked out, Gillis said. Like any other business, the employees have to meet the company’s goals. But she said the majority of those who have completed the training have been exemplary workers.
Many of the call center’s staff can work from home, although both Minter and Foltz said they’d prefer to work at the call center’s main office if they could. Most of the sight-impaired employees at the center are from the Miami Valley, but employees have worked remotely from as far as Cleveland.
Watkins said the partnership wouldn’t have worked if the Red Roof Inn hadn’t gone out of its way to find solutions to the challenges facing the workers. And Tudela’s help made the program possible.
“Accidents happen and this is one of the best accidents that ever happened,” Watkins said.